When you think your time on earth is short, life comes sharply into focus. Ecumen Hospice Chaplain Chris Quistad knows this feeling firsthand, which is how she came to work in hospice.
About 24 years ago, Chis had a life-threatening illness. She was married with three young children and her future was hanging in the balance. Her strong faith in God got her through this challenging time. As her own priorities came into focus, she felt the calling to help others deal with similar challenges. That was the start of her career path as a pastor and chaplain.
Today she is the Ecumen Hospice Chaplain and Bereavement Counselor — a ministry she knows she was meant to do. When Chris got sick, she was already helping others as a Registered Nurse working in intensive care units with both adults and children. After her own experience, she realized her true calling was dealing with the spirit rather than the body.
“Spirituality is about finding meaning in life,” Chris says. “It’s more than religion. In hospice, we often talk about what gives their life purpose. As patients process their spirituality, we can celebrate their life and what part God played in it. It is such a wonderful honor and privilege to be in that sacred space. My passion with hospice is helping people find peace — peace with themselves, peace with their family, peace with God.”
This process is different for different people, Chris says, and there is no right or wrong way to make the journey. “Some people will say to me: ‘Don’t talk to me about God!’” It is a request she honors. What she finds, however, is that as people work through their issues with life and death, they often reconnect with God and their spirituality.
Spiritual pain at the end of life is not unusual, Chris says. “There might be fear, anger, regrets, unfinished things — the would’ve, could’ve, and should’ve thoughts,” she says. She views her ministry as facilitating discussion so they can work through whatever they are dealing with — without judgment.
“Hospice empowers people to let go and be OK with what’s next,” she says. “We encourage them to live life to its fullest with the time they have left — and then find peace and a good transition as they pass into calm eternity.”
Chris uses a number of methods to connect — whatever the person relates to best, such as scripture, prayer, poetry, nature, prayer shawls, or music. Many people she works with have dementia and have lost the ability to converse, yet they may be able to say the Lord’s Prayer. Sometimes playing a familiar hymn brings a slight smile and their eyes brighten. They relax and calm. There is a connection to their spirit which brings comfort to their families.
“I’ll never forget one woman in the late stages of dementia who normally could not say three words, yet she would pray in full sentences, naming all of her children and grandchildren,” she says. “Her spirit was still able to connect to God.”
Chris emphasizes that excellent hospice care requires teamwork from a variety of disciplines — doctors, nurses, aides, massage and music therapists, social workers, and chaplains. “We have a fabulous team who works together — keeping the patient as the main focus and the one who drives the plan of care,” she says. “The patient tells us how we can best make these last weeks or months meaningful for them. As Cicely Saunders, the founder of hospice, puts it, ‘You matter because of who you are. You matter to the last moment of your life, and we will do all we can, not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die.’”
Putting a loved one in hospice is not always easy for a family. “Our hospice team supports the family, listening and validating their emotions, answering questions, and walking alongside them,” Chris says. “We cannot change the outcome but we can affect the journey.”
In addition to working directly with patients and families in hospice, Chris also conducts funerals and gives bereavement counseling to families for up to a year after a loved one dies. Sometimes Chris gets to explain death to children who are dealing with the death of a parent or grandparent. “You can’t just tell children that grandpa went to heaven,” she says. “They point to his body and say, ‘What do you mean? He’s right there.’”
She puts on a glove and explains that the hand is like the part of us which moves, thinks, and what makes us who we are. The glove is a person’s body, she explains. Then she takes off the glove and lays it down, explaining that the hand, his spirit, went to heaven and the glove, his body, stayed behind.
Chris has been doing hospice work exclusively for the last four years. Before that she was a pastoral care pastor and a hospital chaplain. “This ministry is so rewarding,” Chris says. “I am so blessed to be able to do what I love everyday — giving life-honoring care as our patients and families realize they are not alone on this journey. I totally believe that I’m where I’m at because this is where God wants me to be.”